The New York state Public Service Commission on Tuesday approved a modified water rate increase for Suez Water New York, which serves about 500,000 customers in Rockland, Orange and Westchester Counties. Some area officials are upset over the approval while others praise certain components.
The PSC approved a modified rate hike, cutting $960,000 from Suez Water’s $5 million proposal, over three years. And customers would still be paying for a scuttled desalination plant as part of the plan, though $8.2 million less than originally proposed as the PSC mandates a lower rate of return on the costs of the plant. Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day says the modifications do not go far enough.
“The way I look at it, we made a 20 percent dent in the rate increase. Instead of paying $5 million, we’re paying about $4 million,” Day says. “We have a situation where instead of paying $39 for the plant that was never built, we’re paying $31 million for a plant that was never built. This is unacceptable, to be very honest with you.”
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Suez Water New York spokesman Bill Madden says, “We have not yet received the order. We understand it may be approximately 100 pages in length. This is a very complex and lengthy ruling that deserves very careful consideration. We will analyze the order thoroughly before we respond to the PSC and to our customers.”
State Senator David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat from Rockland County, slammed the PSC’s approval of a modified plan, saying it fails local ratepayers and includes lackluster conservation measures.
“It feels like it’s Groundhog Day with the Public Service Commission that the utilities come out with these exaggerated increases, things that are just totally unacceptable, would totally hurt the local economy and then, when the Public Service Commission gives them less of an increase, they act like they’ve saved us money. And that’s unfortunate and that really needs to stop,” Carlucci says. “We can’t keep paying these excessive increases and not see any return for it, is the bottom line.”
PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman, who announced Monday she is stepping down at the end of March to work for the Australian Energy Market Operator, called the plan a win for Suez customers. In the first year, the new plan for the average residential customer will result in an average monthly increase of $0.51 a month, or 0.8 percent. The modified plan also calls for higher rates to be applied to high-use customers. Plus, the PSC strengthened conservation and leak-reduction programs, and directed Suez to solicit input from interested stakeholders to develop a rebate program to assist low-income customers. George Potanovic is with the Rockland Water Coalition. He says that while he remains concerned about the rate increase and leaving ratepayers on the hook for a scrapped desalination plant, the PSC did address some of his points.
“They did say that conservation’s important and they want the municipalities in Rockland to enact conservation plans that could reduce demand on water. They did tell the Public Service Commission staff that they want them to do a better job of oversight of the process and be sure that Suez becomes a better partner with the community in working towards these goals,” Potanovic says. “They [Suez] removed themselves from the Rockland County Water Task Force, and we see the PSC request to Suez as being one that is asking them really to rejoin the task force and become a partner with the community.”
Carlucci, meanwhile, is calling for the following.
“And so I’m pushing for legislation that would require a consumer advocate as part of the Public Service Commission,” says Carlucci. “This is something that, it doesn’t mean we’re recreating the wheel. This is done in 40 other states around the nation and it saves billions of dollars for ratepayers.”
Potanovic likes this idea but County Executive Day wants something different.
“The fact of the matter is that PSC, a state agency, did not provide oversight. They allowed a runaway process to continue at the cost of millions. And now they’re going to the ratepayers who did absolutely nothing to incur this cost and asking them to pay the bill. That is absolutely wrong,” says Day. “And what I’m expecting to see is our state legislators to make an effort to include these costs in the state budget that’s being put together right now and make sure the State of New York picks up the bill that, at the end of the day, they are accountable for.”
Day says the PSC’s approved plan for Suez has no bearing on a county lawsuit announced in June against Suez Water, the PSC and state Department of Public Service. The suit claims ratepayers should not have to bear the cost of a desalination plant that was never built. Meanwhile, Suez Water has until Friday to agree to the plan if it is to go into effect February 1.